Many guys wonder how effective bodyweight exercises can be, especially compared to lifting weights. When it comes to building muscle, it seems like most people prefer lifting weights over doing bodyweight training. There’s a good reason for that too.
Lifting weights is a more predictable path to building muscle and building strength
And does that mean that bodyweight training is useless? (Far from it, in fact, we include a free bodyweight workout down below.)
Let’s take a closer look.
Bodyweight Training Benefits:
- You can do it anywhere (at home, when travelling, etc.)
- Next-to-no costs (no gym memberships, no weights to buy, etc.)
- Aside from getting stronger, you have the ability to pursue arguably more “natural” or athletic movements as you advance (jumping, crawling, hanging, etc.)
- Higher-rep (due to lighter weight) might naturally skew you towards better fitness, especially with shorter rest times, which can be good for many people.
- Closed-chain exercises where your body moves (rather than a weight moving) are generally superior in terms of exercise selection because your body dictates the movement, rather than the weight. This makes it easier on your joints and easier for your muscles to do the work they need to do. (For example, generally, doing chin-ups as closed-chain exercises is better for growth than lat-pulldowns. This is true with weights too, squats being better than leg presses.)
- Bodyweight mastery might be more “rare” and unique in an obese world. Many people who struggle with overeating may be very physically strong—some deadlifting over 300 pounds on their first trip to the gym. So seeing someone with total bodyweight mastery who excels at the advanced movements (one arm chin-ups, 40″ vert jumps—so high you could dunk, doing muscle-ups, doing human flags, etc.) would require immense strength *and* a lean bodyweight.
Bodyweight Training Downsides:
- Harder for total beginners to get rapid visual results—laying a foundation for a lifelong exercise habit.
- Harder to build muscle due to higher levels of effort needed to reach full muscle recruitment (especially as you advance)
- Harder to build muscle due to exercises stressing more coordination and balance rather than stressing the larger muscles
- Harder to build muscle because you can’t use traditional progression by increasing the weight you’re moving (load/resistance). There are ways to increase the exercise difficulty, but that may not make it harder for your muscles. For example, doing a pistol squat (one-legged squat) is more difficult than a bodyweight squat, but mainly due to coordination and stability, rather than quad/glute strength.
- Might be harder to target specific areas (isolation) for weak/lagging areas. For example, if you want to build up your shoulders, you can easily add in lateral raises.
- Harder to build the lower body, traps, and spinal erectors.
Lifting Weights Benefits:
- It’s generally less taxing on your fitness levels, so it’s easier for beginners new to exercising to give their cardiovascular system time to adapt.
- It’s less difficult in terms of stability and balance, especially barbells, allowing you to use heavier weights = faster visible progress.
- If you’re overweight, it’s easier to begin. For example, it’ll be easier for someone who’s overweight to find the appropriate dumbbell for a db bench press, than to have them start with push-ups. Easier to do the lat pull-down than to do chin-ups.
- It’s easier to reach full muscle recruitment by choosing a heavier weight. For example, with a heavy weight, you can hit full muscle recruitment when lifting for five reps (to a rep or two shy of failure.) When you’re doing a bodyweight exercise, it may take 30 reps to get to true failure, with full muscle recruitment only activating in the final reps. Most people prefer lifting heavy for a short time for five reps rather than doing 30 reps, which can be extremely painful.
- It’s easier to do microload progressions, and see your numbers climb. You can use Platemates, a magnetic weight, and add just 2 pounds to your dumbbells. You can use fractional change plates on barbells. You’ll predictably get stronger, week after week. With push-ups, it’s hard to know if you’re getting stronger or not when you’re doing 40+ push-ups. With weight, the numbers won’t lie to you. Either you can lift it, or you can’t.
Lifting Weights Downsides:
- Often harder on the joints. This is because many movement patterns are locked in such as in a machine or with a barbell. People also tend to lift heavier with lower-rep sets, leading to more joint/tendon stress.
- More Expensive. You either need to buy a gym membership or build a home gym. If you build a home gym, there’s the downside of losing space at your place as well.
- It’s stuck inside. When it’s a nice spring or summer day, the last thing you want to do is go workout in a dusty, dirty gym or into your basement. With bodyweight training, you can just go work out in a park or your back yard in the sunshine.
- It’s intimidating for a noobie. First time lifters can often feel intimidated to go join a gym when you aren’t familiar with the exercises, the culture, or that you don’t belong. It’s easier to get started in your own living room.
Those are the main arguments I see.
How to Improve Bodyweight Workouts
If you want to do bodyweight training, the good news is that we can even fix some of the downsides of pure bodyweight training by making some tweaks.
- You can use things around the house to add weight to add in some benefits of typical weightlifting but without needing any equipment. Our favourite option is to get a backpack or a heavy cotton tote bag and load it up with the densest things at your place. I was able to load up a tote bag with 80 pounds of loose weight plates, and it still felt super sturdy. A backpack loaded up full of books could easily reach 30–40 pounds. Then you can hold that backpack as you squat, overhead press it, wear it as you do push-ups and couch tricep dips, wear it as you do door-frame pull-ups, etc.
- Use unilateral work (one side at a time) with the bags to make things even heavier. Put your foot on the couch and do one-legged Bulgarian split squats. Load up that backpack with 30 pounds of books, and do one-arm shoulder presses. Yes, it’ll take twice as long, but you’ll often get twice the weighted load.
- Learn to chase failure—especially for areas you’re targeting. Going right to the edge of failure has caused a number of injuries when it comes to weightlifting. We’ve all seen clips of Cross-Fitters going to the point of their form collapsing under a heavy weight. There’s also research showing that not only does going to failure increase the risk of injury, and naggy joints, but it can reduce your results. But there’s a nuance there. Going to failure on low-reps can cause those problems, but not with higher-reps. With bodyweight workouts, if you are doing anything over 12 reps, try taking the set right to absolute failure. With higher-rep, going right to failure seems to improve muscle development, likely because it’s so painful that we stay far away from failure. Challenge yourself, and even as you hit your failing rep, try and hold the position as long as you can and lower as slow as possible.
- You can modify exercises in a smart way to increase range of motion—helping to improve muscle growth. Push-ups are amazing. But you may even get more growth if you can stretch out your pecs a bit more and work them through a larger range of motion. You can do this by making two stacks of books on the floor, and doing deficit push-ups.
- Instead of progressing via weight, progress through high volume. Volume is the amount of sets added up over the week. You can slowly ramp up the volume over the week, and overreach (pushing yourself harder than you’d be able to keep up with) to drive more muscle gains.
- Use high-frequency workouts, such as training 5x a week. This will shorten your workouts while allowing your reps to stay more fresh and powerful, allowing for more muscle gains. (Also helps to improve nutrient partitioning = less fat, more muscle.)
- Use exercise variety to hit the muscles from slightly different angles for improved growth. Many guys lifting weights just focus on lots of benching. But you could use this as an opportunity for exercise variety by doing backpack weighted deficit push-ups, clap push-ups, uneven push-ups, decline push-ups (feet on the couch), etc.
As you can see, you can still build lots of muscle with a bodyweight workout. And you can build even more muscle if you’re willing to load up a backpack as you do it.
Free Limited Equipment Bodyweight Workout
If you’re interested in a progressive bodyweight program and you don’t have any equipment, you might want to get our free bodyweight workouts below. When you sign up, we’ll email you the workouts, a list of videos, an overview of everything, and get you on the Outlive Newsletter.